More than theology is at stake in the phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code. Once we've responded to the novel and movie's themes of Jesus' divinity and marital status, for example, are we in the clear? Can we rest easy, knowing we've defended the Christian faith against the novelist from New Hampshire?
Audrey Tatou as Sophie Neveu in "The Da Vinci Code." (Sony)
I don't think so, because that is a surface response to a deeper problem--the problem of knowing how to think for oneself.
Is it worthwhile to point out where the novel slips off the edge of fact and into the fun but fictional abyss? Of course. Loads of people have been and are doing this work, which remains important.
Do I hope audiences and otherwise-interested folks will take some of this learned scholarship seriously? Of course. The cottage industry of Da Vinci Code debunking has much to offer.
Do I think the novel and movie provide an opportunity for Christians to learn more about their faith and dialogue with non-believers about it? Of course. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is happening.
But none of this is a long-term solution to Dan Brown's--or anyone else's--stories that raise hackles. A better approach is to make sure people can think for themselves.
The refrain from many Christian leaders since The Da Vinci's Code's appearance in 2003 has been something like: "This novel is dangerous, because average Christians know so little about the Bible and Christian history. They won't be able to tell fact from fiction."
A direct (and short-term) approach to this kind of "problem" is programming people to respond to Error A with Fact B, to C with D, and so on. To be sure, memorization of fact is important.
But problems creep in when talking to a generation that isn't sure what is "fact"--or whose "facts" are genuine--and what the relationship between "fact" and "truth" really is.
It can be dangerous to suggest that people be encouraged to think for themselves. After all, what if their conclusions aren't the same as ours?
When one of my sisters graduated college, she was asked what she learned. "I learned how to learn," she replied.
Education doesn't stop, or even start, with a college degree. And it doesn't consist in memorizing a bulleted list of where Dan Brown relied on conspiracy theories and fringe "scholarship" to weave a hugely popular story.
Education leads us out of the darkness of foggy thinking that is our real enemy on so many fronts: in reading books, processing news and listening to friends or leaders.
Education allows us to question conspiracy theories--not because a pastor said to, but because our own critical-thinking skills kick in. We weigh the evidence, consider the arguments, dissect the motives and critically assess everything together.
Education needn't be formal; some of history's best thinkers never "went to college." But education needs to be, and it needs to teach us how to think for ourselves.
I follow Jesus, and this proposition doesn't scare me. The Dan Browns will come and go, but good thinkers will keep the faith.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.